Author Archives: Ojas Patel

A Case for Convergences in Celebrity and Visual Culture – Ojas

The power of celebrities in today’s world is uncontestable. From being icons of fashion, to figureheads for commercials and charities charities, celebrities play a central role in the commodity architecture of society. Celebrities come from many domains – film, television, music, art, comedy, social media, politics. And celebrities are called upon to play several roles – teach us their crafts, model new fashion trends, reinforce national and industry-related traditions like the grammy awards, reinforce the value of a college in a commencement speech, and so much more. Letting the pass the slightly tautological nature of the definition, celebrities are perhaps most notable just for being people that are well known (Walker 4). For whatever reason, they are people that have garnered a reputation for having a reputation worth paying attention to.

Lil Yachty. Viceland. 09 Feb. 2017 .

Lil Yachty. Viceland. 09 Feb. 2017 <https://giphy.com/gifs/noisey-Y0bq9dOD8dzC8>.

Celebrities as subjects of our visual culture dates far back, depending how loosely you want to define celebrity or visual culture. But the artistic depiction of royalty and nobility was a major driving force of the industry of painting since the inception of the portrait. However, the defining features of celebrity as we know them today are distinct from the royalty and nobility that are the subjects of old art. In fact, when we take the story of one of today’s most widely appreciated and controversial celebrities Lil Yachty into account, it departs drastically from this. Rising to fame in his teenage years, Lil Yachty is one of the youngest, if not the youngest hip-hop artist in the scene today. But from nursery rhyme cadence, to simple lyrics, to a “mumble” vocal style, to a lack of literacy of the hip-hop world and industry, Lil Yachty also is the subject of great debate among critics. Joe Budden of Complex Media recently got into a big debate with DJ Academick and Yachty himself on this issue between old and new hip-hop.

In this interview, Yachty admitted that while he certainly can rap, this is not the central focus of his business model. His business model comes from his image, which has already been deeply commoditized by companies like Coca-Cola in this Sprite commercial. Yachty points to Instagram and Tumblr as the start of his career, and the source of his rise to fame just for “being cool.”

This self-driven ascension to fame started with the circulation of how he depicted himself visually in a social media application that is purely visual. Markedly different from a king or duke commissioning an artist to paint them, the access to contributing to a visual culture that directly interfaces to a person’s feed drove Lil Yachty’s ascension to celebritism and his significance in today’s visual culture. The app itself thrives on the convergence of social media with public driven visual culture afforded by good quality cameras in our smart phones. The role of technology has not been overlooked in documenting the narrative of visual culture. However, as a case study for the origins of celebrity today and the visual culture that supports it, I look to fin-de-siécle Paris and the poster.

This moment in history is particularly well documented, especially for the artists that occupied the cabarets and cafes of Montmartre, such as Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Paul Cézanne. However, I would like to use this moment in history to consider how the affordances of the lithograph as a technology was part of a convergence of social and artistic renegotiations. On one hand, we had the mixing of previously staunchly divided social classes in the growing Parisian district of Montmartre. On another hand, we have the distinct move to realism in depicting the modernism of urban life. And yet on another, we have the growing use of a technology and artistic medium that supported precursors of a mass audience. I will argue that the negotiations of these three key facets of the growth of Montmartre are still at play in the construction of celebrity today by comparing what we know about the artistic culture of Montmartre to the case of Lil Yachty.

The lithography of fin-de-siécle Paris was notable in the convergence of many elements. First at hand is the growing local art and performance culture of Montmartre. In cabarets such as Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir, notable artists such as Édouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Victor Hugo, and several other artists and writers, collaborated together, performed, conspired in their art together a nightlife culture of debauchery and entertainment (Cate 30). They occupied designated spaces in the backs of cabarets with the owners to foster this culture in the publications of journals that would advertise the cabarets and artists as a locus of art and culture. In the fronts of the same venues was a growing market of consumers that would exponentially increase the revenue circulating in the entertainment industry, happy to brush shoulders with one of the big names of the scene. And the ascension of artists to such a status had much to do with the period of France’s history. The fall of the second empire led to much less institutional support for the arts and the survival of art was in the hands of independent artists, writers, thinkers, and cabaret owners – to local artistic cultures (26).

Fichot, Charles. Prolongation de la rue Drouot, magasins de nouveautés du Carrefour-Drouot. Brown University Library.

Fichot, Charles. Prolongation de la rue Drouot, magasins de nouveautés du Carrefour-Drouot. Brown University Library.

Another important element at play in this moment of history is the growth of Paris after the fall of the second empire and rise of the third Republic; the modernism of the urbanism from renovations commissioned by Napoleon III (Chapin 47). The period of history saw the erection of the Eiffel tower, a major movement in modernist painting and writing that directly challenged traditions with the hardened realism of the city, and the rise of an explicit bohemian nightlife. Decreased national support for the arts, as well as a relaxation of censorship laws in 1881 opened up a stage for artists to take more pronounced ownership of the art scene. Renovations to the city commissioned by Napoleon III to Georges-Eugéne Haussmann were designed to accommodate a growing Parisian population, renovations such as better sewer systems and open parks. In a process of what is now known as Haussmannization, in addition to the parks and modern architecture that exists in Paris to today, the renovations brought wide boulevards to promote easier travel between major districts and landmarks in the city. These boulevards also brought an important element to our narrative – a new stage for the public. Along boulevards opened up cafes, departments stores, and entertainment venues which were heavily populated. Of course, this was a major contribution to the increased revenue in the entertainment industry, and the increased attention on performers, artists, and celebrity culture.

Fin-de-siécle Paris is not the first emergence of lithography as a print medium. Emerging in the late 18th century, lithography was still a novel printing press as it was the first very new form of printing to emerge since the 15th century. Starting in Germany, lithography gained its reputation in the printing trade as a reliable way for creating multiples of sheet music and spread throughout Europe as it supplanted and supplemented other forms of printing, such as woodblock cuts and the letterpress (Twyman 16). In addition to music printing, the technology inspired a new trajectory for geologists, the printing of reference sheets for typefaces, and of course art and advertising. The technology was ripe for the era of history in question because of the particularities of the renegotiations of urban life. Other forms of art still thrived in this environment, but the role of the poster was novel and its role is a direct product of the many convergences we are looking at.

One of the major affordances of lithography as an artistic medium is its reproducibility. Walter Benjamin puts artistic reproduction in an era of technological reproduction into context of the traditions of art reproduction that preceded it. Including lithography, photography, and cinema, he discusses the reproducibility of art in terms of its aura, or its uniqueness. We might substitute aura with essence. But what he argues is different in era of technological reproduction is that “by replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence” (254). The aura in question is no longer in the unique matter that composes the piece or the unique moment in which a piece is performed. Rather, technology captures this aura and becomes part of the aura in the dissemination of the piece to a mass audience. In film, the aura of an actor’s performance is captured by a camera and represented through the medium’s translation of that aura for mass consumption. When considering lithography, a counter point that I would like to include to nuance Benjamin’s treatment is considering individual prints not as many versions of a single idea or representations of an original, but the production of multiple originals (Castleman 19). This doesn’t supplant Benjamin’s consideration of the unique vs. mass aura, but nuances it in that each piece has its own unique aura that in the unique impressions of the minds of others creates a mass impression.

While the above affordance of lithography regards the ontology of lithographic illustration in art, another important affordance of the technology is its reproducibility in the circulation of art pieces. Cabaret owners like Aristide Bruant and Rodolphe Salis founded journals to support the growing culture of Montmartre and circulate the artists and performers that occupied their spaces. The journals represented a new paradigm for art collection. Side by side with the journals were albums of prints, such as Toulouse-Lautrec would do for certain celebrities such as Jane Avril and Yvette Guilbert. This meant not only that lithography was an artistic medium defined by its reproducibility, but for whom the reproducibility could reach. Appearing on the streets of Paris and the halls of venues accessible to a more diverse range of classes, lithography represented an artistic medium that was open for consumption to lower classes.

Yvette Guilbert. Jules Chéret. Lithograph.

Yvette Guilbert. Jules Chéret. Lithograph.

Along with the convergence of classes in the audience of lithography, the medium hybridized two different forms of the visual culture. Jules Chéret, often dubbed the father of the poster, opened his printing shop in Montmartre in 1866 and over the course of his career designed and printed over 2,000 unique posters. But most notably, what he accomplished was the hybridity of high art and commercial art (Iskin 20). His posters and the commissions he was hired for artistically rendered the prints he designed as a way of making the commercial affordance of the technology more artistic and simultaneously commercialized art in the poster’s use for advertising. He furthermore established a visual culture of the poster particular to this hybrid form that created the backdrop to which later artists that would be commissioned for lithograph prints would be responding to.

Yvette Guilbert. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Lithograph.

Yvette Guilbert. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Lithograph.

Toulouse-Lautrec, of course, chose a much different approach in his visual rhetoric. The grotesqueness of urban life and the modern cityscape which Chéret’s fantastical imagery served to be an escape from, Lautrec chose as his subject (Iskin 284). The growing popularity of this style of modernism of course was a product of the many convergences previously discussed. But most significantly for our vantage point here, the depiction of celebrity in this backdrop of visual rhetoric played into the new shape celebrity was taking.

“Once the province of rulers, politicians, and great men, celebrity was now an equal-opportunity venture, open to all classes of entertainers, courtesans, dandies, artists, and writers” (Chapin 46).

Looking at the poster’s of Chéret and Lautrec as interfaces to Montmartre in context of the many convergences and cultural renegotiations of the time period, we see a very carefully orchestrated, multicausal, multi-faceted world. We visually see the battle between how and what to sexualize. We see the battle between tradition and modernism. And of course, Lautrec’s position in the art history canon and Chéret’s slightly subordinate role in the history of the poster and visual culture is representative of the narrative shift in the representation of celebrity, as well as artistic technique and modernity.

Comparing and contrasting La Gouloue or Yvette Gilbert shows dynamic artistic styles particular to the lithographic medium and particular artists. What we can gleam from this is that the merging of visual culture and renegotiated social contracts is as much technological as it is artistic or historical. Developments in all three of these domains show us the harmonic convergence that was the lithographic visual culture of fin-de-siécle Montmartre.

Of course, when we bring this into modern terms with Lil Yachty, the visual culture has become something totally different. While a detail of the technological infrastructure and the historical and artistic trajectories that led to Lil Yachty’s career is beyond the scope of this paper, it would be an interesting place for further research to consider his career in this same late. It’s the growth of a visual culture of celebrities that continued and grew through the 20th century. The internet and smartphones enabled a visual culture of social media that supported the growth of celebrities negotiated via the public itself. Lil Yachty didn’t commission an artist to style him and do the work of circulating his imagery. Rather, it was self driven and the public was already in a position to ascend him to celebrity status. And his music, which he admits, is about image and not growing the traditional artistic values of hip-hop, supports this image. This represents another major convergence of social, technological, and artistic conventions, one that is still in the process of being renegotiated.

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility.” Selected Writings: Volume 4 1938-1940. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2003.

Castleman, Rita. “The Artist’s Life and Work.” Toulouse-Lautrec: Posters and Prints from the Collection of Irene and Howard Stein. Atlanta: High Museum of Art, 1998.

Cate, Phillip Dennis. “The Social Menagerie of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre.” Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre. Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 2005.

Chapman, Laura H. “Studies of the Mass Arts.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 44, no. 3, 2003: pp. 230–45.

Complexmagazine. “Lil Yachty Joins Episode 114 of Everyday Struggle | Joe Budden & DJ Akademiks.” YouTube. YouTube, 02 May 2017. Web. 14 May 2017.

Donson, Theodore B. and Marvel M. Griepp. Great Lithographs by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. New York: Dover Publications, 1982.

Driessens, Olivier. “The Celebritization of Society and Culture: Understanding the Structural Dynamics of Celebrity Culture.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 16, no. 6, 2013: pp. 641–57.

Iskin, Ruth. The Poster: Art, Advertising, Design, and Collecting, 1860s-1900s. Hanover: Dartmouth College Press, 2014.

Ives, Colta. “French Prints in the Era of Impressionism and Symbolism.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 46, no. 1, 1988: 1–56.

–“The Janus-Faced Modernity of Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret.” Visual Resources, vol. 29, no. 4, 2013, pp. 276-306.

Pedley-Hindson, Catherine. “Jane Avril and the Entertainment Lithograph: The Female Celebrity and Fin-de-Siècle Questions of Corporeality and Performance.” Theatre Research International, vol. 30, no. 2, 2005: pp. 107–23.

Twyman, Michael. Panizzi Lectures : Breaking the Mould : The First Hundred Years of Lithography. London, GB: British Library, 2001.

Walker, John A. Art and Celebrity. London: Pluto Press, 2003.

Celebrities from Lithography to Photography

Late 19th century Paris saw the convergence of many phenomena attributed with modernization – the rise of nightlife culture in Montmarte, lithography used to advertise this artistically, the new face of urbanism from large-scale renovations to Paris known as Haussmannization, and of course the art world’s response to these rapid changes. The rise of the lithograph as an art form was not wholly novel in the world’s history of art, but the way it was used and the particular techniques artists used is strongly attributed to the growth of modernity. What I became interested in as I looked further into the work of Toulouse-Lautrec was his stylistic choices. In response to the banality of urban life, Montmarte and its nightlife served as an escapism and other lithograph producers commissioned to advertise cafe-concerts and performers, such as Jules Chéret and Pierre Bonnard, used fantastical imagery to mirror the escapism. However, Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithography often depicted the very banality of urbanism that other artists rejected. This stylistic choice is ultimately how his lithographs became canonized into the history of art, as opposed to hitoulouse-loutrec-henri-de-divin-japonaiss contemporaries.

Yvette Guilbert, a performer, was a favorite of Lautrec’s and he made two personal portfolios of her in the course of his career. She complained about how he always depicted her with a long neck and made her so ugly – and she’s not wrong. Consider her depiction on the stage in Divan Japonais, in which her neck extends so far that her head is cut off from the print altogether. And Jane Avril in the foreground, while not depicted as ugly as Guilbert was, would also be represented on prints frowning – very opposed to Lautrec’s lithographic contemporaries.

The depiction of people famous or important to culture is not new in the history of art. Think of all the commissioned portraits that we have throughout our world’s museum collections. So it is no surprise that with the rise of lithography came the representation of famous celebrities. Lithography, of course, was not limited to use for art. Most lithography was used for much more practical purposes – creating multiples of musical composition sheets, for mixed-press methods in book publishing. However, with the popularization of a media form often follows the application of this for documenting our celebrities. The rise of daguerreotypes and photography also saw this – in fact, the rise of mass media can be associated with a growth of celebrity culture.

Research Question: Was the rise of lithography with its affordance of multiples a precursor to mass media celebrity culture?

Methodology: Put the lithograph producers of Montmarte into a dialogic network of celebrity representation beside a discussion of the nightlife of Montmarte. Put this into perspective of the history of photography and the representation of celebrities in that medium. And finally, put this into context of the rise of mass media celebrity photo publications.

Biblio thus far

Anonymous. “Inside the Celebrity Portrait.” PDN ; Photo District News; New York 29, no. 12 (December 2009): 20–23.
Iskin, Ruth E. Interfaces: Studies in Visual Culture : Poster : Art, Advertising, Design, and Collecting, 1860s–1900s. Lebanon, US: Dartmouth, 2014.
–“The Janus-Faced Modernity of Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret.” Visual Resources, 29:4, 276-306.
Ives, Colta. “French Prints in the Era of Impressionism and Symbolism.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 46, no. 1 (1988): 1–56.
Lobinger, Katharina. “Photographs as Things – Photographs of Things. A Texto-Material Perspective on Photo-Sharing Practices.” Information, Communication & Society 19, no. 4 (April 2, 2016): 475–88.
Malan, Douglas S. “A Sharp Focus On The Celebrity Nightlife; Danbury Lawyer by Day Turns into Paparazzi Member by Night.” The Connecticut Law Tribune, May 25, 2009.
McNamara, Kim. “Publicising Private Lives: Celebrities, Image Control and the Reconfiguration of Public Space.” Social & Cultural Geography 10, no. 1 (February 2009): 9–23.
Meneses, Geeta Alvares. Review of Review of Portraits in Princely India. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 20, no. 3 (2010): 384–88.
Murray, Ray. “Keeping the Paparazzi an Arm’s Length Away.” The Journal of Popular Culture 46, no. 4 (August 1, 2013): 868–85.
Natale, Simone. “Photography and Communication Media in the Nineteenth Century.” History of Photography 36, no. 4 (November 1, 2012): 451–56.
Parker, Sarah. “Publicity, Celebrity, Fashion: Photographing Edna St. Vincent Millay.” Women’s Studies 45, no. 4 (May 18, 2016): 380–402.
Pope, Sarah Elizabeth. “Beyond Ephemera: The Prints and Posters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.” M.A., Northern Illinois University, 2009. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.
Twyman, Michael. Panizzi Lectures : Breaking the Mould : The First Hundred Years of Lithography. London, GB: British Library, 2001.

Contextualized Infinity – Yingxin and Ojas

“Red, green and yellow polka dots can be the circles representing the earth, the sun, or the moon. Their shapes and what they signify do not really matter. I paint polka dots on the bodies of people, and with those polka dots, the people will self-obliterate and return to the nature of the universe.”
—  “Infinity Nets”, Kusama Yayoi Autobiography

Phillip Kennicott’s review of Hirshhorn’s Kusama exhibit in The Washington Post highlights one of the major problems that we’ve been working with this semester. In response to reviews of the exhibit that argue systems theories and cybernetics are central to the work, Kenniccott says, “It’s not that it’s wrong to intellectualize Kusama’s work; but it is very wrong indeed to intellectualize it in a way that annihilates Kusama herself.” How do we solve the problem of creating museum exhibits and media that interface to the meaning systems that gave rise to them? When there are theories of interpretation that tend to privilege the position of the observer over the intention of the artist, how do we create a framework of interpretation that  simultaneously acknowledges the artist’s intention, the power of the observer, and interfaces to the artists with which Kusama is in dialogue? Of course, Hirshhorn’s choice not to put strong emphasis on Kusama’s mental health history is very much that – a choice. The pros and cons of this choice we leave to you, but what we intend to do here is briefly discuss our impression of the exhibit, put the exhibit in a dialogic model with other artists, and how the exhibit contributes to this dialogue.

Dots, in many people’s eyes, are just simple shapes that are everywhere, while the polka dots constitute the key components in Yayoi Kusama’s art work. Although only 20 seconds are allowed in every infinity room, I felt as if I was completely immersed into the world of infinity, especially when in the room Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, which was my favorite, the dim light sparkling and it was just like in the universe and I was one of those little stars. As a grown-up, I felt like having thrown away the stress all of a sudden when looking at those lovely dotted pumpkins and looking back into my childhood.

While watching the documentary Yayoi Kusama: I Adore Myself, I was even more impressed by this genius and lovely avant-garde artist. Suffered from unfortunate early years and long-term mental illness, she always wants to commit suicide, but just as what she said, “I would have committed suicide without art” – art is the only thing she values so much in her life, and she keeps pursing the essence of life and death and represents the eternal theme in her art work. She adores herself and her art work more than anything else in the world, while she’s conscious about the philosophy of life and death within her world of polka dots; she’s genius and most importantly, persistent in her art creation – she completed a series of 50 creative paintings in 2008. (Documentary, I Adore Myself)

rauschenberg-robert-reservoir

Rauschenberg, Robert. Reservoir.

Jo Applin poses Kusama’s Happenings work in dialogue with Robert Rauschenberg’s collage pieces (and of course, Allan Kaplow credited with coining the term Happenings for performance pieces). In the same way Rasuchenberg blurs the line between art and life by including everyday objects in his art, Kusama blurred the line by bringing her art into the streets and rooftops of New York City (Applin 16). Kusama’s work takes this further in re-imagined everyday objects, specifically in the form of Boat, a boat made of phallic pillows, and Obliteration Room, an all white room with all white furniture on which observers, or more appropriately participants, put stickers. And of course, an evocation of line blurring can’t do without at least a small nod to the Surrealists. Early 20th century European avant garde is a strong foundation on which a dialogic model for the Postmodern works of mid-late 20th century art can be built.

Kusama, Yayoi. Compulsion Furniture (Accumulation).

Kusama, Yayoi. Compulsion Furniture (Accumulation).

The exhibit, by centering and emphasizing Kusama’s Infinity Rooms, highlights the net and polka-dot patterns that inspired much of Kusama’s early work, which she admits was inspired by hallucinations and obsessive compulsions. Just the sheer number of phallic pillows and knowing that she individually sewed each piece, or closely looking at the net patterns of her paintings certainly supports this understanding. While the paintings and sculptures clue us in as observers, the Infinity Rooms inform us as participants by placing us as subject in the center of the piece. We are then free to meander our infinite reproductions, the many iterations of us in a room fool of hanging lights, glowing pumpkins, or blow-up polka dot balls. While each design choice emphasizes a specific aesthetic, the design of the infinity room extends that aesthetic into infinity and places us at the center of this infinity, ourselves becoming infinite.

In thinking about how the exhibit could interface to the meaning systems that give rise to it – in many ways it already does. In a digitally augmented social world, a name of an artist or a name of a piece is what we need to start researching. Besides the background readings for class, searching through search engine results and library resources using the artist’s name as a keyword is a great way to dive further into the artists’ work and discover how to place her art. The way the exhibit could do that better is through an augmented reality digital interface that people can access on their phones while they’re in the exhibit. They could develop an app like the AR trail guide for the Sweetwater State Park (Bolter 36). In such a digital interface, pointing the phone camera at a piece could generate pop up hyperlinks and supplementary information that a user can navigate for more context. Or, if someone is in a rush and can’t wait in line, they could point it at the Infinity Rooms and the walls would become see through and they can see a digital representation of the piece. Such an interface would make the exhibit more interactive (as interactive as it already is – I mean, you literally see yourself in it!), and could overcome the information gap that led to readings of the exhibit that Kennicott (And we) took issue with.

Poster Project

For our group project, we’ll be focusing on the Phillip’s Collection exhibit of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Specifically, we’ll be addressing how showing different versions of a single piece in different stages of production interfaces to the lithographic production process. We hope to extend this to talk about Toulouse-Lautrec’s pivotal role in elevating the artistic status of print-making and posters. On our poster, our design idea is to first show Jane Avril in the different stages of production as was

Jane Avril

Jane Avril

displayed in the museum as our primary image. Our secondary image will be a lithograph slate with a half-finished print on it and next to it will be a stack of prints. We will supplement these images with text that specifically treat the exhibit as an interface and highlights Toulouse-Lautrec as a key figure in the history of print-making and posters.

 

References

  1. Applin, Jo. Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field. London; Cambridge, MA: Afterall Books, 2012.
  2. Bolter, David Jay, Maria Engberg, and Blair MacIntyre. “Media Studies, Mobile Augmented Reality, and Interaction Design.” Interactions 20, no. 1 (January 2013): 36–45.
  3. Documentary Yayoi Kusama: I Adore Myself
  4. Kennicott, Phillip. “An exhibition of the beloved Kusama with everything but Kusama herself.” The Washington Post, Feb. 16, 2017.
  5. Yayoi Kusama’s Exhibition website: http://www.yayoi-kusama.jp/e/happening/index.html

Portraits and Selfies – Ojazz

The post-photographic era of image production is unique, in that it preserves the “aura” (to use Walter Benjamin’s loose terminology) of photography, while being almost wholly removed from the analog photography process. Martin Lister, drawing from Raymond Williams, describes it as a residual form of culture (pg 6). The digital photographic image is not photography as it has historically been, but the cultural form has been preserved. In this entry, I would like to explore how the portrait as a photographic form has evolved through different eras of photography.

Working Title/Artist: Gustave Le Gray Department: Photographs Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1854 photography by mma, DP161909.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 6_10_09

Delaunay, Alphonse. Gustave Le Gray

The above photo of Gustave Le Gray was taken in 1854, right before the era of “Cardomania” took off (Buckingham 15). Cardomania refers to the takeoff of celebrity portraits in the 1860s. They would involve elaborate studio backdrops and clamps to support the back and neck as subjects sat for great lengths of time during the exposure. This is a special moment in photography because it was a paper print made from a glass negative. Gustave Le Gray conceptualized the callodian process that replaced daguerrotypes and calotypes that used wet glass to create negative images from which paper prints could be made, though its invention and implementation was credited to Frederick Scott Archer (Buckingham 11). In the portrait, Gustave is making kind of a goofy face while he smokes his cigar. In contrast to the my Snapchat images later, the backdrop of the portrait makes this much more a portrait style of photography.

brtiney-spears-1998-rolling-stones

Comparing that to this image of Britney Spears is not too different. I couldn’t find much about the technical aspects, but I wanted to discuss the difference in composition. Britney Spears, teen (at the time) pop star, is a fascinating amalgam of hyper-sexualization, adolescent innocence, and media representation. The documentary Merchants of Cool goes into the market research that led to the development of two major archetypes in the mid-90s MTV resurgence: the mook and the midriff. The mook was the male jackass character, like Tom Green and Steve-O. The midriff was a hyper-sexualized and young woman characterized by innocence. Britney Spears rise to fame needed the collaboration of many actors, including the record label, booking agents, music video producers, and TV networks. All parties worked to reinforce a complex media image of Britney Spears midriff character, including journalists. The above Rolling Stone magazine cover from 1998 shows exactly this with the article headline “Inside the heart, mind, and bedroom of a teen dream.” Photography here reinforces the media image of Britney Spears, and is very much a constructed set, kind of like Gustave Le Gray. The portrait plays a much different role in capital pursuits, as the portrait works to reinforce an image that is prevalent throughout several mediums. Photography exists in an elaborate, complex, and rich media network.

ojas-patel-snapchat-2 ojas-patel-snapchat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The above images were taken in the Snapchat app. It’s a social media app that lets users take photos to send to friends. When someone receives it, they can view the image for a duration of time (up to 10 seconds) set by the image creator. After that, the image is deleted and gone forever. Users can also create a story, and in this way, the images/videos can be added to a feed in which the image/video temporarily remains (24 hours). The two images above are much more candid. The one with the star ceiling is from when I was home for spring break and my friends who received it would be privvy to this context before looking at the image. Or for those who’ve been to my parents’ house, they would pick up the context while looking at it. The other photo has a caption, an affordance of Snapchat. It shows a moment in which my cat interrupted my studying. The content of the photo images in this context is much more candid than the other two images. I wouldn’t necessarily say they are portraits, but rather “selfies.” Selfies exist in a dialogic model with self-portraits, but that smartphones have cameras built into them are what led to the selfie type. There’s an immediacy and candidness to selfies that are missing from traditional portraits.

When the photograph is remediated through software, the medium of photography gets closer to the semantics of language. Each tokenized use of a photograph doesn’t represent the photo’s ontology, but its use in a specific context. Our language possesses a unique capacity for infinite generativity – that is an unlimited number of combinations (thereby an unlimited number of meanings) built from a limited number of words. As photographs move into the realm of software and the idea of the “original” or “authentic” becomes less significant in the world of photographic images, the syntax of photographic images grows. In Martin Lister’s words, the digital photograph is “fugitive and transient” (pg 8). What a particular photo means depends on the context in which it is used. Of course, we are not there yet. Licensing of images does clearly define an original in a lot of cases within the social context of the internet and social use of an image. However, because the “original” image was probably edited from its own original, we already see a move in the direction of a language-like photography. Furthermore, language still contains the issue of plagiarism.

In thinking about how the original photographer or maker of a photograph cannot control the settings of a user’s screen when looking at a digital image, each token of the photograph has to function as a prototype. We can still consider the photograph, how different colors contrast with other colors within the photograph, whether its composition is of high quality, and if we like it. It’s still a photograph – but we can’t think of it as the exact same photograph as the “original” (if there is one). It’s not like a painting that remains the same collection of matter. It’s a collection of machine code that has to run through a machine and be represented on a pixel grid. The actual “matter” of the photo is built on a circuit of electricity that runs through a pixel grid and sends a message of what color each individual pixel should display. It in itself is already an impression of an image. The only way we can consider it the same as a painting is if we consider a painting’s composed of atoms as analogous to the pixel circuitry of a digital image.

References

Buckingham, Alan. Photography. New York: DK, 2004

Lister, Martin. The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. 2nd ed. London; New York: Routledge, 2013.

Merchants of Cool. Dir. Barak Goodman. Frontline, 2001. Digital.

Art and Cult – Ojazz

The transmission of culture argued by Debray brings to mind the Art World and social dimensions we’ve been working with in previous weeks. What’s notable is that the distinction between traditional communication and transmission is that transmission is intended to embody the message through time. Of course, this message is dynamic and changes as recipients of the message change, which ultimately changes communicative infrastructures of the communities that preserve them. However, the reinforcement of the immaterial abstraction, whether or not it has changed throughout time, is such an interesting phenomenon particularly in cultural reception. What one person might call an organization, a company, a religion, a club, another might call a cult (drawing from Benjamin’s definition here a bit). But it is ultimately whether you are an in-group member or not that will define your experience with a particular community’s cultural transmissions.

The documentary Beware the Slenderman accounts the event in which two middle school girls killed a mutual friend because a character from an online fiction community told them it was necessary. It was later found, during the court case, that one of the girls suffered from schizophrenia, inherited from her father. Though this example is a dramatic outlier of the community that supports Slenderman, there were other people who believed in Slenderman, a horrific 8-14 tall man in a black suit with no face. People began posting edited videos as “Slenderman Sightings:”

A whole community contributed to the lore of Slenderman. In the lore, Slenderman had a mansion where he invited his proxies, or servants, to live, and people started doing tasks as ways to be initiated as a proxy. While the killer’s inclinations for psychosis led her to believing killing her friend was okay to do for Slenderman, what is more interesting to me are the people who still pass as contributing members of society. At what point do we consider the belief in Slenderman a delusion? At what point do we consider this a cult? And then at what point can we call it a valid community? We certainly don’t refer to the Art World as a cult, even though undergrad art students at University can behave like one in their faux pas idiosyncrasies. All the Slenderman narratives and footage can still be found in the hub that created it – creepypasta – and YouTube. I’m not sure if there are currently any initiates, but the artifactual network that reinforced this odd phenomenon is still accessible.

Another documentary and odd community I’ll talk about through the lens of reproducibility is that of Unarius, the inter-dimensional scientific community based out of El Cajon, CA. Part of their artifactual cultural transmission is what functions as documentary films (how you define these is definitely determined by whether you’re an in-group member or not). The documentary Children of the Stars follows members of a community who follow the teachings of their archangel Uriel, someone who claims to be clairvoyant.

They purchased a plot of land on which extraterrestrial folks will come and land their UFOs to build an interdimensional university. The role of film in this context is to build a tone of the spiritual or magical. Even their website has cosmically inspired illustrations and rhetoric to support their beliefs: http://www.unarius.org/. The way that the principle of reproducibility affected this group is this idea of the “aura.” The aura of art lost its value in authenticity and moved into social and political realms. In this case, the aura of Unarius is supported by digital artifacts. Though Benjamin talks about how the actor loses their aura in the process of being mediated by the camera, in the world of Unarius, the archangel Uriel is actualized in film.

References

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility”

Debray, Régis. Transmitting Culture, trans. Eric Rauth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Excerpts from Chaps. 1-2 and 7.

Production Process and Artistic Networks – Yingxin and Ojas

Artworld as a network system, connecting the audience, artwork and the artists
The interaction experience at the interface: coloring the painting.

When getting upstairs in the Phillips Collection, my eyes were immediately caught by Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographic painting exhibition, since I felt as if I’ve ever seen the similar style of paintings or decorations for the book covers, paper cutting and movie posters, especially when in my childhood. The lithography art has become an iconic art form since the 18th century, and has been widely spread and applied to various fields for the use of art, economy and entertainment. The symbolic value with vivid reflection of the time have made this art and technology everlasting and popular even in nowadays – from high arts to pop arts, more and more people are able to see and enjoy the lithographic posters. Additionally, from these lithographic artworks, one could also see the remix of art forms around the world, for instance, the Japanese ukiyo-e prints.

Henri de Toulouse-Loutrec, Divan Japonais

Divan Japonais

Before coming to the exhibition, I’ve never been so close to the lithography and printmaking process though I’m familiar with the style of book covers and posters. The key stone which captures the whole image, is a crucial foundation of the painting and printmaking. Different colors can be incorporated before putting the paper and dipped brushes onto the stone during the lithographic printmaking. In this way, the foundation of image can be reused to print multifarious posters capturing various situations of the same image, and even make a fascinating combination along with them. Most interestingly, certain versions of the lithographic paintings with different colors are put together on the same wall so that people can easily make a visual comparison, thus appreciating the artworks with individual understandings.

Jane Avril

Jane Avril

Moreover, the artworld as a network system, connects the audience, artwork and the artists. Therefore, how to get the audience involved into the artwork and so as to enhance the understandings and increase the interactions, is becoming more demanding for the curators. I was relatively impressed by one of the interactive sections in the exhibition – the coloring games. Since people are more likely to notice the different coloring of the lithography paintings, the curator has set up a space for people to color Lautrec’s classical paintings with color pens in hand, so that it’s just like a hand-on simulation of the process of lithography printmaking, where paper with only black and white image serves as the key stone, while coloring is like creating a poster. In this interactive section, the audience will get more experience in the preliminary lithography printmaking as well as enjoy the exhibition along the way.

lithographs

Consider the following song and subsequent Youtube comment:

yvette-guilbert-youtube-comment

Yvette Guilbert was a popular singer/performer in Montmarte at Moulin Rouge and the subject of many Toulouse-Lautrec pieces. The comment is the first comment in the comments section under this video. Also notice the highlighted thumbs up indicating that I liked the comment. That’s because Henri de Toulouse-Loutrec brought me there too. While we’re not focusing explicitly on how museums fit into the digital networks of cultural knowledge, I think the confluence represented by the above scenario speaks volumes about how museums interface to cultural knowledge. nafsika pappa and I shared a common cultural experience, and traveled a similar path to that cultural experience. Not only did our museum exhibit interface to the art world and cultural production, but the cultural world in which he existed. Toulouse-Lautrec brought me to a fascinating moment in history, namely the peak of late 19th century Parisian nightlife in Montmarte. And this is because his prints played a notable role in the creation of this culture, which is why his art and name hold such gravity in the Artworld even today. Though Bourdieu’s treatment of art in relational thinking deals with a network of artists and actors in the art networks that reinforce art as an institution, I’d like to expand this to the cultures that artists live in, as much of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work is inextricable from the cultural world of Montmarte. His position in the representation, circulation, popularization of performance productions in that era is reinforced even today by my deep dive into French cabaret.

In Dr. Irvine’s treatment of Remix, he argues that recursion is an important tenant of dialogism (along with combinatorial generativity). Though Toulouse-Lautrec interfaces to a fascinating, artistically fruitful era of history, who is Toulouse-Lautrec now? One answer lies in the following image:

Spongebob Squarepants

Spongebob Squarepants

Squidward is a self-absorbed, mediocre “tortured artist” type. Throughout the show, he tries bringing culture to bikini bottom through a talent show, he tries to start a marching band to play the bubble bowl, and generally elevates himself above the work-minded, fun-loving interests of his neighbors, Spongebob and Patrick. In the episode from which the above image comes from, Squidward pretends to be a ghost after Spongebob and Patrick mistakenly think they killed him (in fact, they just destroyed a wax sculpture of him). Spongebob and Patrick must fulfill the biddings of Squidward, and part of that is finding a comfortable spot to settle. In each spot they propose, Squidward says “too hot,” and then “too dry,” and then when they reach the above spot, he says “too-louse-Lautrec.” Even for Squidward, perhaps Toulouse-Lautrec might be a bit stuffy? Might be too high art? The best way to consider this is in the scope of who the audience of Spongebob Squarepants would be. I would say cartoons fall under the category of abject media, meaning it is generally looked down on (among video games and cheap romance novels). This shot at Toulouse-Lautrec represents a dialogic model in which cartoons are trying to gain recognition, a model in which Toulouse-Lautrec already holds significant recognition. Also love the remix of La Troupe de Mademoiselle Eglantine:

La Troupe de Mlle Eglantine, 1896 Chalk lithograph with brush and spatter, in three colours, 61,7 x 80,4 cm

La Troupe de Mlle Eglantine, 1896 Chalk lithograph with brush and spatter, in three colours, 61,7 x 80,4 cm

References
1. The exhibition introduction on the website of the Phillips Collection: http://www.phillipscollection.org/events/2017-02-04-exhibition-toulouse-lautrec
2. Bourdieu, Pierre. Introduction to The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1992. Excerpt, pp.29-40.
3. Irvine, Introduction to the Artworld Network System and the Institutional Theory of Art
4. Irvine, Marin. “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture: A Model for Generative Combinatoriality.”
In The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies, ed. Eduardo Navas, et al. (New York: Routledge, 2014), 15-42.

A Dialogue with Paik

By: Yingxin Huang and Ojas Patel

It seems as if I’ve walked through centuries of the art world in the National American Art Museum at a time. The styles of the halls and the art works are perfectly in accordance with each other. Passing through the Great Hall on the third floor, an expanded dome space filled with light warm color and lattice floor appeared – the Lincoln Gallery.

The Korean American artist Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii is one of the art works exhibited in this gallery. It is in a semi-closed dimension with three-sided walls. The continental U.S. is installed in the middle, with the states of Alaska and Hawaii on the left side and a description label on the right. One could easily get immersed in such an interface and plenty of details could be noticed in this large-scale remixed art work. When I walked into this space and stood in front of the art work, I was immediately astonished by this huge art work composed of hundreds of televisions broadcasting multifarious videos, and then I recognized the outline of the boundaries – it is the US! I was even more impressed and curious about it, then walked towards the description label on the right side. “He celebrated some states for their connections to his artistic friends and collaborator – composer John Cage in Massachusetts, performance artist Charlotte Moorman in Arkansas, and choreography Merce Cunningham in Washington.” (SAAM) This work remixed different forms of art and media, creating a more perceptible and harmonious effect to the audience, letting them echo in looking for their own states, or find some interesting videos in particular states, or just shocked by such a complete and vivid American cultural representation. “Rather, we create artifactual meanings in patterns generated from organized symbolic relations and shared knowledge at another level – networks of meaning that function like a cultural encyclopedia distributed through, and implementable across, all symbolic forms, genres, and media.” (Remix, Irvine 17) Meanwhile, when appreciating this visual art, I almost reflected Hopkins’s words, that the Electronic Superhighway also derived from the form of experimental “Happenings” and Fluxus manifestations, which “blurred the boundaries of art and life”, “favoring ‘live’ artist-audience interaction as opposed to the aesthetic closure of Greenberg’s aesthetics.” (After Modern Art, Hopkins 111) I agree. The artist-audience interaction was the most wonderful and interesting experience I’ve gained from this visual art work, so that I could stand in front of it for a long while, constantly stared at those videos and quickly memorized certain videos representing particular states without any boredom.

Reading about the biography of the Korean American artist, we will be more likely to understand why he created this visual art work, and how he remixed different art forms and made a success. Born and raised in Korea, Nam June Paik ever went to Japan and Germany to learn music and art studies. “Through his performances there, he first established himself in the European avant-garde.” (Hanhardt, 2) In 1964, he moved to New York and permanently lived there. “This constant movement linked his friendships and creative partnerships across time zones and diverse places and cultures.” (Hanhardt, 2) Among those people who had influences on him, John Cage, his great teacher, had strongly inspired him in his art making; and Paik pioneered in the Neo-Dadaism known as Fluxus during those periods. He enabled a dynamic remix of music, video art, technology and so forth, to “draw you in and give you new ways to see and experience the world.” (Hanhardt, 7) His life experience and acquaintances, had largely contributed and helped form his video art style. Moreover, with the boom of post-war cultural consuming, Paik’s predictions of the future of media markets, broadcast and television development in the world also created opportunities to the video art and related technology advancement. In this sense, we can see the dialogism of art forms within the social context, which was described in Bakhtin’s insights quoted in Irvine’s book, “every expression in a culture emerges in a living, intersubjective dialogue of speakers with identities in social and historical context.” (Grammar of Meaning Systems, Irvine 35) “Expression forms a node in a collective process with a past, present, and future…The ‘dialogic condition’, not an individual statement, is thus the foundation of living discourse and culture.” (Grammar of Meaning Systems, Irvine 35)

Dialogically, Paik’s working in a network of the avant-garde and new media. As mentioned above, he was an original member of the Neo-Dada movement known as Fluxus, and is therefore directly in dialogue with the representation of “nonsense” that the Dadaists sought to achieve in post WWI Europe. In the U.S., a country that is increasingly transferring cultural power and authority to images and new information communication technologies which harness the speed and power of electricity, the effect within Electronic Superhighway is that of overstimulation. We are overstimulated by representation, color, speed of communication, so much so that our geographic boundaries and borders, as well as our understandings of different geographic spaces, are in essence completely mediated by these technologies. This is done imagistically through advertisement, cultural iconography, food images, etc. In its overstimulation, it is directly in dialogue with Dada, an art movement that produced poetry with no comprehensible syntax (or even diction at times), non-representational sculpture, and manifestos and monologues full of contradiction. However, the creation of nonsense is not through creating a product that in itself does not contain representational meaning. The map of the U.S. in neon is a representational meaning. Within each state are representational meanings via images. However, the cluttered organization, scale, and neon bright colors of the piece create a sense of nonsense in the sheer amount of “sense” we’re supposed to be processing at the same time. And in this way, the title of the piece is dialogically related to the time period it is produced in. Artifacts always exist in a particular moment in time, and are therefore in dialogue with the culture of the time. And the electronic superhighway outside of the context of the piece itself refers to the vast network of electronically interconnected technologies that give us telephones, cable/satellite T.V., internet, etc. The piece reflects the overwhelming status of technological interconnectedness, a critical component of our contemporary world. Paik is furthermore considered to be the single most influential figure in the emergence of video art in the 60s (Hartney). In this sense, video art after Paik is always in dialogue with Paik’s work, as in a dialogic model, these works and people’s consumption of works in dialogue with Paik’s work changes Paik’s work.

For this reason, we can also take Electronic Superhighway to be a prototype of Paik’s work, and furthermore, a prototype of video art. Distinct from T.V. or film, video art can be described as, “recordings that are broadcast, viewed in galleries or other venues, or distributed as tapes or discs; sculptural installations, which may incorporate one or more television receivers or monitors, displaying ‘live’ or recorded images and sound; and performances in which video representations are included” (Hartney). Video art is necessarily a medium that happens within art spaces, such as art galleries, black box theaters, or even if it is in the form of a tape or disc that can be viewed at home it is still distinct from a T.V. show or movie. Electronic Superhighway acts as a prototype (a token that stands in as representative of a Peircean type) in that it uses the visual medium of video, and is a combination of materials and media: it is sculpture, it is video, it is new media, it utilizes the television set, etc. Furthermore, in that it contains fifty different combinations of video images, we can think of each set of videos as its own video piece with the greater video piece. As a prototype, we see fifty different ways video itself can be used.

References

  1. Hanhardt, J. G. (2006). Nam June Paik (1932–2006). American Art, 20(2), 148–153. doi:10.1086/507506
  2. Hartney, Mick. “Video art.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press.
  3. Hopkins, D. S. (2000). After modern art, 1945-2000. Toronto: Oxford University Press.
  4. Navas, E., Gallagher, O., & Burrough, X. (Eds.). (2015). The Routledge companion to Remix studies. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
  5. Smith, T. (2011). Contemporary art: World currents. Boston, MA, United States: Pearson Education (US).
  6. Irvine, Martin, The Grammar of Meaning Systems: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics, Communication, Culture & Technology Program. Georgetown University, 2017.
  7. Irvine, Martin, Dialogue, Dialogic, Dialogism | Intertextuality, Intermediality | Remix, A Stuent’s Guide, Communication, Culture & Technology Program. Georgetown University, 2017.
  8. Description of Electronic Superhighway in SAAM Website: http://americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artwork/?id=71478
  9. Biography of Nam June Paik in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nam_June_Paik

Oh, the Memories… – Ojas Patel

My first encounter with Impressionism was not in a museum looking at a painting, but a book about Joseph Conrad’s Modernist style of prose in Heart of Darkness. It compared the extremely controversial image used in Marlowe’s initial phase of his foot journey through the Congo of groups of black people as “bundles of acute angles” (because of the way they sat on the ground) to Claude Monet’s Impressionist work Impression, Sunrise. I didn’t care for the analogy particularly, but before that reading, I didn’t know anything about Impressionist painting. Fast forward a few months, to a lovely date I went on to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in a room filled with works of French Impressionism (I’m talking Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, like… ~*~Impressionism~*~), I encounter Renoir’s The Grands Boulevards, and I must’ve stared at the thing for ten minutes. My date started to realize I was a huge dork, made the mistake of finding it charming, and continued to date me for three years. This confluent moment in my life – a date that started a significant relationship in my life, the merging of schema and lived experience with Impressionism, and my own interest and fascination with this Renoir work was my first deep dive into the tradition of art history. This is what I’ll be exploring in this post – the confluence of three unrelated experiences (the Heart of Darkness essay, the date, and the Renoir painting) at a critical juncture in time as an interface to a grander tradition of artistic representation and museums.

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The Inner Logic of the NGA – Yingxin Huang and Ojas Patel

The first time when I stepped on the white stairs towards the National Gallery of Art, I could feel a sense of solemnity surrounded by the neo-classical architectures, where there are numerous well-engraved colossal pillars as the structure. Browsing around at the fountain place, I found the gallery in a symmetric arrangement, with consecutive exhibition rooms on both sides of the fountain.

One of the most striking features of the rotunda is the number of bodies – the general feeling that there is something to be marveled judging solely by the fact our bags were checked and there were so many people coming in and out. Heavy foot traffic has always felt like a good indicator of judging the cultural significance of a space, and the National Gallery certainly met the criteria. Furthermore, it was a diverse group of people coming in and out, which to me signified that this was not a privileged space of dominant narrative aggrandizement, which is something I was wary of going in.

Walking through the hallway, we passed a delicate garden and entered the exhibition room, and finally we saw the House of Representatives, a masterpiece of Samuel Morse. The large-scale painting is placed in the middle of one side of the room, and the other side is the portrait of the family of George Washington. As a visitor, I was immediately attracted by the two large-scale paintings in such a squared room, and they are somewhat in a similar historical context, reflecting their significance in the American history. In almost every exhibition room, there are two couches in the center, providing a resting place for visitors and in the meantime, a perfect seat to enjoy the masterpieces in the room. I sat in the soft couch, staring at the House of Representatives, and I felt like I couldn’t be more comfortable and pleasant to appreciate such a great masterpiece in the gallery.

Moreover, I always wonder how different visitors appreciate the exhibitions. I usually try to explore the inner logic of the exhibition display. Is the paintings categorized by time order, painter or content? What kinds of relationships can be discovered room by room? Therefore, I believe some visitors like me may pay close attention to the specific order of the exhibition. As the visitors move forward room by room, they may find the answers from the styles of the paintings, the annotations or the foreword of the rooms. While others, especially for those general tourists, may find it tiring and boring in this way, and would rather focus on the most well-known masterpieces so that they will save more time to go through the whole gallery. I used to bring my friend, who’s from Baltimore, to this gallery for a visit. She picked up several leaflets with introductions of the most famous paintings in the gallery, quickly looked for the locations of them, and went straightly towards the paintings one by one. It took us around 2 hours to go through the whole east wing of the gallery. The leaflet, as a means of promotion, it will include information of the most famous paintings and painters; as an educational tool, it may provide more detailed information such as introductions of certain masterpieces, purpose of the exhibition, and even monthly highlights of related workshops. In this respect, the leaflets (or booklets) exactly indicate the changing role and function of the galleries and museums, which are developing from private collections to public exhibitions, from a symbol of wealth and social status to a place of conservation, research and education. “Once the museum admitted the public, its exhibition function became predominant. Collecting, conservation and research in the main supported the development of exhibitions.”  “Exhibition, education or interpretation – the conveyance of culture – and a commitment or social welfare have grown to be important aims for the museum in the last century” (Alexander 9).

And this highlights the utility of interface as a guiding theoretical framework for museums. The grander sign system of art history and artistic representation is necessarily dynamic and always in flux. Because any art piece is necessarily a product of the continuum of art history, which it reflexively represents, the museum design plays a critical role in culturally placing the art pieces that compose the exhibit. Furthermore, museums are a symbol of an egalitarian political systems as exemplified by the role of the Louvre in the French Revolution. Not only did revolutionary leaders make a point of preserving art pieces from conquests and opening up museums to the general public (previously privileged to the rich), the Louvre was to function as a central museum in a museum system (Alexander 29-30). This marked a sharp turn in the role of art in a democratic society.

What a treasure that move ended up being, as we owe museums in the contemporary age to this turn. One major function of museums is to serve as a refuge or asylum for art pieces, so that art can be preserved and we have can have access to a fuller understanding of art (Buren 191). And a crucial function this is, because ultimately, the sign system of art functions as a network. The continuum of art can only function as a sign system and a narrative if we have a network of art pieces to represent this fuller sign system and narrative. Preserving art and displaying them in museums allows us to fully realize Latour’s definition of network, which is to identify the major actants that are crucial for the sign system to exist (799). Between the history of acquisition of an art piece, the production of a piece, and the presentation of it in a museum, there are several modes of entry into identifying a piece of art into the many networks it belongs to. Furthermore, fundamentally, the choices made in presentation (where the piece is hung, what pieces it is hung next to) fundamentally restructures the tight network it exists in as the actor embodies the network (Latour 800). So the National Gallery, aside from housing and preserving the art in its possession, actively defines the network of art which we as a democratic people must be critical of to ensure the space is properly representative.

Works Cited

Alexander, Edward P. and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, 2nd ed. Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press, 2007.

Buren, Daniel. “Function of the Museum.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, ed. by Richard Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Latour, Bruno. “Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist,” International Journal of Communication 5 (2011), 796–810.